Burt Shevelove, Larry Gelbart and Stephen Sondheim had become disgruntled with the fact that Broadway’s musical comedies where proficient on show stopping tunes, but inept when it came to humour. They wanted to see bellyaching laughter returned to the heart of the musical comedy and so began their four-year collaboration (1958 – 61) on ‘A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum’.
Double entendres, mistaken identity, and insults abound in this farcical story about hen-pecked husbands, gorgon wives, silly old codgers pursuing dim-witted virgins, lascivious but inexperienced young men, prostitutes, soldiers and eunuchs. The farcical chaos is unleashed in the household of Senex when his wife Domina leaves for the country and the household slave Pseudolus seizes his opportunity to plot his freedom.
Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart deliberately plagiarised from the ancient Roman playwright Titus Maccius Plautus. Plautus wrote a succession of comedies based around the character of Pseudolus, a slave who in exchange for his freedom was willing to devise any chaotic plan to have his young master ‘Hero’ declare him a free citizen of Rome. If this sounds familiar it is because the popular BBC comedy “Up Pompeii” starring Frankie Howard was more or less based upon “A Funny Thing Happened …”
Desmond Barritt is jovially camp as Pseudolus and he draws the audience into an intimate bond of mirth as he knowingly winks and smirks in our direction while attempting to orchestrate the growing bedlam on stage. Sam Kelly is equally delightful as Senex, the husband of Domina who sings of her husband as being “That lecherous, lewd, lascivious, loathsome, lying, lazy, dirty old man of mine!” Both these actors fully enjoy the lampoonery and have a contagious sense of fun.
Hamish McColl as “Hysterium” is hysterical as the slave endlessly manipulated by Pseudolus, especially when he is persuaded to dress as the virgin Philia - watching him trying to imitate girlish charms while pretending to be a corpse is a moment of farcical delight. Philip Quast is equally amusing as the thick-headed muscle bound roman soldier “Miles Gloriosus” especially in the scene where Gloriosus mourns the death of Philia.
Many of the actors are not natural singers, especially Isla Blair who as Domina - croaks her way through the song “That Dirty Old Man”, but this hardly matters as none of the tunes are particularly memorable except the opening number “Comedy Tonight”.
Edward Hall’s production ensues that Sondheim’s later reputation for high culture never has an opportunity to intrude upon this light-hearted farce. From the opening scene to the final act the stage is full to bursting with the zany nonsense of vaudeville.
“A Funny Thing Happened …” is high camp entertainment; do not go expecting to hear great music or a sophisticated comedy. The opening verse of the first song says it all “Something familiar, Something peculiar, Something for everyone. A comedy tonight!”
photos by Catherine Ashmore
What other critics had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Carry on without th laughs"; " PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Cornucopia of delight." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Vertiginously funny show." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Exuberant revival." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Enjoyable show."